The Patterns of Software cities

Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold

Software cities

In the history of media and urbanity it has been argued that the urban has lost to a suburb ‘notably rich in private spaces and poor in public ones’ (Philip Kasinitz qtd by Scott McQuire). The urban media theorist Scott McQuire argues that with the development of new digital media, ‘the media event’ could possibly return to the public urban domain and he sees art as playing an important role in this development. But in what way?

Evidently, digital media changes the cityscape with media facades, urban screens, mobile screens, computer generated architectural forms, etc. However, it is not only media that is introduced to the city but also software. Today’s media cities are software cities. The representations of media are always connected to underlying computational processes that change the complex life forms of the city.

To understand the life forms of software cities we must compare the city with the software. In its understanding of systems as inhabited structures, interaction design has been influenced by architectural theory and Christopher Alexander’s idea of a ‘pattern language’.

Design patterns address the public in different ways. In one perspective, they exist to pay attention to the user, and as such they are used to make software usable to a public. From another perspective, they do not always make the mechanisms behind the software public accessible.

When software is implemented in cities one must pay attention to the patterns they imply, the activity they propagate rather than the form they impose. It is the object of this article to explain the movement of pattern languages from architecture to software and back again in order to account for these patterns. Furthermore, to induce accessibility and not only use of software cities, one must look in the direction of software art and aesthetics.

A pattern language

According to Alexander a successful environment depends upon an ability to combine physical and social relationships.

“[T|owns and buildings will not be able to come alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless people share a common pattern language, within which to make these buildings, and unless this common pattern language is alive itself” (x).

‘A pattern’ is a way to summarize experiences, individual practises and practical solutions in a way that makes it possible for others to re-write and re-use them. Alexander’s book comprises of 253 patterns that each has its own context, problems and solutions that sometimes helps complete larger patterns or need other patterns to be completed.

As an example, Alexander uses the pattern ‘accessible green’. People need open green places to go; but when they are more than three minutes away, the distance overwhelms the need (305). Consequently, green spaces must be one build “within three minutes’ walk […] of every house and workplace” (308). In this view, the pattern helps fulfil larger patterns such as ‘identifiable neighborhood’” and ‘work community’ (xiii).

Alexander includes quite extreme patterns in his book. E.g., the “Carnival”: “Just as an individual person dreams fantastic happenings to release the inner forces which cannot be encompassed by ordinary events, so too a city needs its dreams.” Therefore, one should “[s]et aside some part of town as a carnival-mad sideshows […] which allow people to reveal their madness” (299-300).

The pattern language is a way of democratising architecture and planning by letting the pattern language respond to the needs and desires of the inhabitants in a language that is common and non exclusive to architects. Accordingly, as seen in the case of the carnival, combining physical with social relationships often challenge prevailing hierarchies of control and experience that e.g. exclude madness.

Design patterns in software

Software design patterns deal with both technical issues and formal user issues, they may address how a coding task is handled or how much information can be handled in a window. Like Alexander’s patterns, they are often subject to collaboration between programmers and designers. In order to support this, Ward Cunningham in 1995 developed the WikiWikiWeb, a forerunner of the Wiki. Ward’s Wiki is a simplified form of code management and versioning systems (like e.g. Concurrent Versioning System (CVS)). Ward’s Wiki is a user-editable web page dealing with design patterns.

However, as noted by software artist Simon Yuill, design patterns in computing “are almost exclusively applied to formal and technical issues, how software mechanisms operate internally, rather than how software functions as a human ‘inhabited’ environment” (Yuill p.n.p.). Combinations of physical infrastructures with social and human factors, as found in the carnival, are left out, but must be invigorated. Within computing this happens, as Yuill observes, in the FLOS movement (Free/Libre Open Source) that explicitly combines the technical structures to e.g. individual freedom and refusal of intellectual copyright.

How are physical and social relationships combined, in the software design patterns of urban computing?

Patterns in the software city

The standard image of a software city is somewhere where the media saturation is obvious and clearly visible, like Shibuya in Tokyo or Times Square in New York. However, less spectacular implementations of software in cities, resembling much digital urban living also demand attention.

Investigating the digital layers of the midsized Swedish town Lund we have found that software is embedded via ‘log-in spaces’ and ‘iSpaces’ paired with a ‘hypertextual connectivity’ connecting physical space with virtual networks (Andersen and Pold). Public participation in the city as software is mostly characterized by either surveillance or configuration.

As a general pattern, surveillance is not only visual but also structural, following seamless transactions: When logging on to a network, transferring money, using personal identification numbers to keep records, etc. As a way of interacting with software, configuration means to change a system on a user level, including as diverse actions as image editing, setting software preferences or shooting monsters in a computer game. Configuration patterns are found when we use the software city to play games, find weather reports, use a GPS for creating routes, etc.

In this sense, inhabiting the software city is like inhabiting The Sims. You are given the inhabitant’s right to configure the system, your actions are registered by the system, but you are never given the right of a citizen to negotiate the system itself.

Surveillance and configuration patterns both reflect a particular view on the public sphere. When public Wi-Fi networks are restricted and its users tracked it is to avoid violations of copyrights, illegal conspiring, terrorism etc. Hence, a surveillance pattern fulfils a need to protect land and property. When I, using my smart phone apps, can find information about the place I am, connect to my friend anywhere in the world or track my whereabouts and share them in public, the configuration pattern fulfils a need to support the exercise of the individual. The ability to perform, as an individual in this environment, is equal to the sum of acquired gadgets and applications.

The software city does not allow its inhabitants to actively negotiate the relation between the physical and the social. It is for instance in many places not legal to create patterns that challenge copyrights by opening Wi-Fi networks. What seems to be lacking is a pattern for agency, for writing and supporting people’s ability to express, develop and negotiate values and aspirations for their lives and their environment. In a city dominated by software and patterns of surveillance and configuration, patterns of writing become increasingly important.

Writing the software city

Writing patterns relate Roland Barthes’ notion of ‘writerly’ a particular way of reading associated with the open texts of modern literature, addressing the reader as an active producer of meaning, rather than a passive consumer (Barthes 10). Also drawing on Barthes, Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life compares writing to walking and the lived experiences of the pedestrian.

One example of how to write a city is found in the works of the British Artist collective The People Speak. The People Speak develops media platforms for public and civic conversation and decision-making. In 2009 we conducted a series of experiments setting up one of their platforms, Talkaoke in Denmark. Talkaoke is a public talk-show, highly mediatised, mimicking a television studio, using lights, cameras, screens, live internet broadcasting, twittering, video annotation, post production/editing and online archiving.[1] Talkaoke uses the media spectacle to propagate activity. In an inviting, entertaining and informal way, people can express themselves publicly, listen to each other and perhaps even develop new perspectives on the world.

Analysing the conversations we found that people often reproduced official arguments (e.g. discussing climate changes, city surveillance, EU elections). They actualized an argument, relating it to the location and to personal experiences, testing and contextualising it. Quite often, they also reproduced the stories and arguments that fitted with the public image of themselves. No doubt, the discourse sometimes got stuck in clichés or personal stories. Other times, however, the participants reflected on the predefined patterns of the discourse itself. In such situations, the roles and arguments transgressed assumed expectations and became a matter of concern for the participants. E.g. in a public park there was an ongoing thread about the experiences of a middle aged woman from Greenland. In Denmark, Inuit people have a reputation of heavy drinking, often taking place in public parks. Her story demonstrated a much more nuanced and lived life exceeding the stereotypical self-presentation and in many ways ‘narrativized’ the park to the participants.

To conclude, understanding and reacting to the complex life form of software cities we may choose to benefit from their patterns of surveillance and configuration. We may choose to feel safer in a city where health records, money transactions and potential terrorists are tracked; we may choose to use the applications on our smart phones in meaningful ways, like home banking or traffic updates; or we may choose to have fun using their gadgets and games. Change, however, cannot appear from mere participation. To have a dynamic software city that includes an awareness and debate about its complex life forms, we need access to the software city; we need to be able to write the software city. Art and aesthetics may not revolutionize the software city and automatically overthrow existing patterns of public, urban participation, but platforms like Talkaoke may foster the first steps to think differently about the kind of problem a software city is.
Works cited
Alexander, Christopher et. al. A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.

Andersen, Christian Ulrik, and Søren Pold. “The Scripted Spaces of Urban Ubiquitous Computing – the Experience, Poetics, and Politics of Public Scripted Space”.” 2009. Print.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970. Print.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

McQuire, Scott. “The Politics of Public Space in the Media City.” First Monday Special Issue #4 (2006). Print.

Rancière, Jacques. “Literature, Politics, Aesthetics: Approaches to Democratic Disagreement (Interview with Solange Guenoun and James H. Kavanagh).” SubStance 92 (2000): 3-24.  Print.

Yuill, Simon. “spring_alpha: a social pattern book”. Media Mutandis: a NODE.London Reader: Surveying Art, Technologies And Politics. Eds. Marina Vishmidt et. al. London: Mute, 2006. Web 16 Dec. 2010. <>


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